How should the US confront state fragility and democratic decline?
18 Oct 2021|

The return of strategic competition between states is an established geopolitical trend. But states themselves are getting more fragile, according to the 2021 Fund for Peace Fragile States Index.

The index shows an increase in nations hovering on the brink of state failure, including Mali, Nigeria, Venezuela and Syria. Covid-19 and climate change are listed as contributing factors. And it’s not only states in the global south that are moving down the stability scale—the United States showed the largest year-on-year worsening, and the United Kingdom also experienced a marked downturn in stability.

The index indicates that the pandemic has blurred assumptions about what makes a state fragile. The most reliable features preventing states from becoming fragile were not just economic or health resources, but also social capital and a sense of a shared national good.

Democracy indexes have measured steep declines too. For example, the 2021 Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index found that one-third of the global population lives under authoritarian rule, while less than one-tenth lives in a full democracy, the lowest level since the launch of the index in 2006.

There’s a close feedback loop between these two metrics. Authoritarian populism thrives in fragile states and usually drives a state further into a cycle of conflict. Worsening climate change, rising inequality, corrupt financial flows and new technology are further complicating the state stability picture.

If the global system of states is getting shakier, there are many question marks about the role of US power and international institutions in guaranteeing the system’s stability after past failures. At the multilateral level, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently called for renewed commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to prevent a vulnerable post-Covid world from sliding further into chaos.

Over the past few years, commentary on US domestic politics has wrestled with how the US recalibrates its presence in the world. And there’s a continuum through the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden not to repeat the military interventionism of the George W. Bush administration, even as great differences remain between Republicans and Democrats over the importance of alliances and diplomacy.

This continuum was reflected in bipartisan support for the Global Fragility Act, passed at the end of 2019, which prioritises US engagement to stabilise fragile states. It calls on the US government to fund develop and test new ways to reduce and prevent violent conflict by addressing root causes—political, social and economic grievances.

It also calls for the US government to do this in a coordinated way across the departments of Defense and State and USAID. That’s something the US doesn’t do well, according to Frances Z. Brown, former director for democracy and fragile states on the National Security Council staff and senior fellow and co-director of Carnegie’s democracy, conflict and governance program.

‘The Global Fragility Act is trying to lay out no more US business as usual when it comes to fragile states,’ says Brown.

So far, the act has been slow to get off the ground. The Trump team tried to get traction with it and failed because the draft strategy didn’t meet legal requirements. And the Biden administration is still staffing up a Department of State that was severely depleted during the Trump era.

The implementation strategy is still stalled at the first hurdle—selecting the countries where it will be implemented. ‘It’s been an interminable process, and we’re looking forward to it being finalised. This is where the rubber really hits the road,’ says Brown.

But the critical thing here is the ‘how’ of addressing political and economic grievances in another country. Brown says that the experience of failure to improve state stability in Afghanistan offers a lot of lessons, for the Global Fragility Act in particular.

The most important lesson about reversing state fragility, she says, is that more resources don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes. Rather, it is all about the politics. The billions of dollars directed to Afghanistan in training, security and economic assistance didn’t result in better governance and only exacerbated underlying political problems of corruption and incompetence.

Of course, the Afghanistan mission was complicated by the fact that it was both a military anti-terrorism mission and a stabilisation mission, which often worked at cross-purposes, says Brown.

‘We’ve been talking for years in the international policy community about the need to work politically in fragile states. But we still really have yet to figure out how we operationalise that insight.’

The costs of political failure have been high. According to Brown, ‘The Taliban victory was much more a psychological and political victory than a military conquest. They were able to take territory without firing a shot.’

This was because local leaders, government officials and soldiers had often not been paid and viewed the government in Kabul as corrupt and exclusionary. ‘So, the US did not have the politics and the relationship with the host government right.’

Because of its hegemonic baggage, Brown argues that the US might not always be the best partner for a fragile state.

A key aspect of the Global Fragility Act is that it calls for the establishment of a multi-donor fund, which would ideally allow the US to partner with other nations like Australia on fragile states. ‘That has yet to be moved forward, but that will be an interesting space to watch,’ says Brown.

Also interesting is how another central aspect of the Biden administration’s foreign policy—strengthening democracy at home and abroad—might align with the fragile states agenda.

Brown argues that this focus is right, but, bureaucratically, fragile states are addressed in different silos to those focused on pushing back rising illiberalism. ‘We have people working on democracy in one camp, and people that work on conflict and deploying to warzones in another. We have this assumption that a country is in the conflict basket and then it suddenly transitions to being in the democracy basket, and that’s not really how the world works.’

A signature US democracy initiative that started as a Biden campaign pledge is the Democracy Summit, set to happen virtually on 9–10 December this year and to be followed with a second leaders summit at the end of 2022.

The three broad themes are anti-corruption, human rights and countering authoritarianism. Both established and emerging democracies like Iraq will likely be invited as well as troubled democratic states like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The invitation list will also include Taiwan, whose president, Tsai Ing-wen, wrote in Foreign Policy this month that her country has ‘an important part to play in strengthening global democracy’.

Civil society and the private sector will also have a presence.

There’s not a lot of detail about the agenda on the State Department website as yet, but Brown says there’s a lot of excitement about the summit in Washington. ‘It is a really important signal to send to the world that the US is back on the side of advocating very loudly for democracy and is bringing together democracies to take on challenges.’

The Biden administration has made it clear that any country that attends needs to make firm commitments to both improving democracy in their own countries and championing it around the world. And some experts suggest that the summit should result in a formal enshrining of US democracy strategy in major US national security directives.

As one of the few stable democracies left in the world and a close US ally, it will be interesting to see what big ideas Australia brings to this table in December.